Commission Considers Changing Ballot Petition Rules

Flyers describing two initiatives on police oversight with same name in 2023 (Photo by John Anderson)

Remember voting last year on two, seemingly identical Austin Police Oversight Acts that were actually created and funded by opposing groups?

Before that vote, you might have been one of the thousands of people stopped on the street by a stranger to talk about signing a petition for a local law that purported to increase police oversight but was actually a measure undermining oversight, organized and funded by police groups.

There have been several controversial ballot measures in recent years (the Save Austin Now measure to create more police jobs, or the Uber- and Lyft-supported rideshare measure). Soon, it could be trickier to get such measures on the ballot at all.

A group of dedicated volunteers have been meeting for nearly a year to hash out recommendations for how the city can improve its petition initiative process. They are approaching the final stages of their work.

The Charter Review Commission (2024 edition), met last week, Jan. 30, to discuss amendments to the city charter they have been considering. Tonight, Feb. 8, at 7pm they’ll hold a public hearing to gather community input on the changes. After a few more meetings, they’ll forward their recommendations to City Council, which then may place them on the Nov. 5 ballot for voters to accept or reject.

One recommendation under consideration would require groups seeking to change local law through petition initiative to file a “notice of intent” with the city clerk. It would require people launching a petition initiative campaign to include the names, addresses, and dates of birth of five eligible voters in the city who are supporting the campaign. The notice would also have to include contact info for the campaign organizers and a one sentence summary of the initiative, and the campaign’s proposed ballot language.

Commissioners seem to agree most on those transparency recommendations, but the big question – one that the commission was explicitly created to address – remains unanswered.

How many signatures should campaigns have to collect before their initiative makes the ballot? Right now, it’s whichever is lower of 5% of qualified voters of the city or 20,000 signatures (that lower number is always 20,000 because of Austin’s booming population). That number is low for a city of Austin’s size – it’s one of the lowest in Texas – and it doesn’t cost much to hit the target. The Austin Police Association funded their faux-oversight initiative virtually by themselves. As a result, voters have contended with a lot of policymaking by initiative in recent years.

But some commissioners fear raising the number of signatures needed will incentivize campaigns to seek their desired change to local law through amending the charter – which has the same 5% or 20,000 signature threshold, but is codified in state law and cannot be modified by local governments.

The commission will meet again, Feb. 15, to incorporate the community feedback into their recommendations.

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